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Guided by the light

Mark Horrobin, Senior Colourist, Creative Outpost

When it comes to colour grading, Mark Horrobin is up there with the best in the UK. Learning from the ground up, he has honed his craft over the last 28 years. Yet, despite all the technological advances, it’s the old school approach of working with the light that he still uses as his guiding principle.  We chat to Mark about his approach, his inspiration and his recent move to Creative Outpost working with the people who were there at the start of his career.

Growing up on a farm in the large open spaces of the Outback in Australia has influenced Colourist, Mark Horrobin throughout his post production career, not only giving him inspiration but also driving the types of grading he likes to do, “I like wide open spaces, mountain views and vast skies, which I think has got something to do with growing up in Australia. To be honest, the things I like to grade the most are big epic landscaping type genres like car commercials where they've shot cars driving around in crazy, beautiful landscapes. I very much enjoy that kind of work. I definitely find inspiration from being outside with nature, seeing untouched, natural, beautiful things.”

He started out wanting to be a journalist, but a year into university realised it wasn’t for him.  After finishing his degree, and a spot of mining (don’t ask), he packed his rucksack and headed off to discover the world, ending up in London.  Calling the only English guy he knew, who just happened to work at a post production company,  Mark managed to land himself a job there.

“I knew nothing about post production. Literally zero.  But, as fate would have it, a runner had resigned the day before and they gave me the job. And, suddenly, this whole new world opened up in front of me. 

“The company was MPC and that’s where I met Q and Danny [Creative Outpost’s Co-founders].  They were in the class of runners before me.  They’d just been promoted to videotape assistants as I started running. I worked hard and got promoted and then I met the person who made me realise what path I wanted to take.”

Working in the machine room Mark was asked to do a screening for a visitor, who then handed him a tape to play. “I put it in, lights down, volume up and what I saw blew my mind. I had no idea you could make pictures look as arty and beautiful as that. And, it was at that point, I knew I wanted to learn from this guy.

“His name is Jean-Clément Soret and I later learnt they were trying to recruit him and, luckily for me, he took the job. I angled to be his assistant, the work started coming in and he started grading the top stuff in London.  So, I grew up with this exposure to his French way of working which was a bit revolutionary on the London scene and I got to spend a lot of hours on high-end beautiful work.  I made a point of learning as much as I possibly could from him. And that’s how I learnt my craft.

The 14 year itch

After a 14 year stint at MPC, Mark moved to Smoke and Mirrors (now Tag Arts Collective) where he spent another 14 years setting up and running the grading department.

“I guess I get the 14 year itch, which is why I decided to make my recent move to Creative Outpost back with Danny and Q. When they told me that they were looking to get serious about the grading side of the business it seemed like a great opportunity to work with people I know and build something meaningful.  Q and I did some real pioneering on remote grading workflows over a mobile phone network in 2010 long before remote work was a thing.  Creative Outpost puts remote work front and centre, which suits my particular situation perfectly.  I’m very much looking forward to fine tuning this side of things.”

When it comes to Mark’s approach to a piece of work it’s the storytelling and the light that drives and guides him.I didn't have any kind of creative background yet there's something about taking a picture, layering certain things into it and improving it to tell a story with that picture which really floats my boat.  I love that part of the process.

“The first thing I do is look at the light. For me the best work is where you're following and respecting the light. I play around and just feel where the light wants to be. When you start to work with something, there's an intuitive direction that you feel the material wants to head towards. And, within that parameter, that still leaves you options - you can start to play around with levels of contrast, darkening certain areas and highlighting others. And, you can start to add a little bit of what you think is going to pull the attention into the right areas of the images.

“What is tricky is when the direction of the brief changes because when you start pulling away from the light or pushing against the light you've got to dig deep to keep it looking stylish and give it some integrity.”

"The old school solution is work with the light, understand the material you're working with, build a solid foundation and then everything else will fall into place." "And that approach is just as pertinent when I was working on film as it is today.”

A little bit of voodoo

A lot has changed in the grading craft since Mark started out and he still misses some of the old school solutions. “It's unrecognisable to when I started. The transition from analogue to digital has been huge. It’s had a massive effect on how everything is made and it's also somehow democratised the process. Before there was a little bit of voodoo and it was a very bespoke discipline.

“I miss the loss of discipline when it comes to what you're trying to achieve. Because it's all digital now you can just make copies and get another take. Whereas, previously, decisions had to be made. They were very thoughtful decisions. They weren't made lightly, and once they were made, people stuck by them. There was a serious discipline to the whole process.

“Also, now there are lookup tables that you know will take you to a particular look. And I do find with a lot of the younger generation guys who are coming through, that's their go to. They just add one of those and then work around that, whereas the old school solution is work with the light, understand the material that you're working with, build a solid foundation and then everything else will fall into place. And that approach is just aspertinent when I was working on film as it is today.”

Mark says his approach won’t change at Creative Outpost and he’s looking forward to growing the opportunities for the grading department.  “I don’t think my creative process will change.  I’ll be using the same tools and every picture has its singular creative opportunities.  I really want to build a respected grading department which hopefully contributes both to growing all other areas of picture creation and to securing high-end work.  With that work will come a greater creative outlet.

“I’ve done it before, and I feel that Creative Outpost has the right mix of people, ambition and vision to be able to do it again. I want to see us in Televisual’s Top 10 Best Post Houses To Work. The audio team at Creative Outpost are also incredible and the suites are fantastic.  There is plenty to work with.”

The right culture and ethos

The culture and ethos at Creative Outpost also played an important part in Mark’s decision to make the move, as did the opportunity to manage, motivate and mentor its young talent.

“One of the things I am most proud of throughout my career is how much young talent I have mentored.  The hours are challenging but the key to morale on my team has always been transparency and availability.  When things are tough you need to be at the centre of it with everyone else. I’m always available for training and advice.  I find it becomes a two-way street and, when I need something out of the ordinary, people are happy to oblige. 

“I’m very much looking forward to working as part of an inclusive team.  Having, for the last few years, worked as part of a much larger corporate entity, I have missed the closeness of a strong, dedicated, cohesive bunch of people. Having met the team, I get a really good feeling that everyone sticks together and looks out for one another. 

“I know having good people in the right positions is important to Danny and Q and I think they’ve nailed it.”